Saturday, January 14, 2017

Randy's Best of, 2016 Edition!

This is the first year my book total dipped since I re-joined Fifty Books back in 2013. I'm not 100% sure what happened. I think part of it was that I was reading more challenging books, as compared to previous years, and that I was busy (I done got married, and what not). Also, I think I went after both challenging and long books. Thus, Notes from a Dead House, though a good book, also was sometimes quite slow. Roughing It, The Years of Lyndon Johnson, and The Count of Monte Cristo were all quite long. And then, both Reading for Plot and From the War on Poverty to the War on Crime were difficult reads.

But perhaps I am just making excuses.

Notes about my 2016 reading:

  • Not a great year for novels. I only read eight, but if you cut out the short story collections (The Lone Ranger, Roughing It) and the one that is a thinly veiled memoir (Notes from a Deadhouse), and the one I was re-reading (The Count of Monte Cristo), I only read four novels (The Familiar, Small Gods, A Lesson Before Dying, and The Bluest Eyes). Given that one of these was a sequel, The Familiar, I feel that I read far too few novels.
  • A good year for me and non-fiction: almost half of my books were nonfiction.
  • Also, a big year for me and biographies. Historically I've had very little interest in biography, but I find that, as an adult, I have become more interested in learning about how other people have found their way. I suspect my future holds more biographies, and certainly more volumes of Caro's Lyndon Johnson.
  • Ten reviews. Last year I did eighteen reviews; the previous year, seventeen.  So, a low year for me. Perhaps 2017 will be better.

With my mere twenty-four books, I think a top five is within the spirit of the best-of lists. So, without more dithering about, my Top Five:

#5: On Writing: a Memoir of Craft by Stephen King

My literary snobbishness went through a period where I turned my nose at King, despite having reading his novels extensively in my youth. However, I revisited King to finish off The Dark Tower series and was generally satisfied. After reading Reading for Plot, though, I have really come to appreciate King's remarkable skill for plot design. King's memoir was an unexpected delight. I expected to enjoy it and get some tips on writing along the way. What I actually got was an extremely thoughtful and engaging memoir, not just of King's writing life, but his life. I'd suggest it's worth reading for anyone interested in the craft of writing.

#4: On Violence by Hannah Arendt

Per usual, Arendt blew my mind. I continue to find great insight in her words, regardless of how old they are. I want, some day, to feel I understand her enough to apply it to understand our world today. I feel that I got closer, but I still have quite far to go.

#3: Small Gods by Terry Pratchett

Quotable at every turn, entertaining on every page, and interesting to top it off, my first experience with Pratchett was as good as promised. Small Gods in particular was recommended to me by a friend as a book that would especially resonate with me. I am excited to know of another author whose work I can turn to and enjoy.

#2:The Years of Lyndon Johnson

Like some other books I've read over the last couple of years, this appeared on my radar because of a Paris Review interview. Ninety percent of the time, I find these interviews boring and self-indulgent; however the good ones are so good to justify reading all of them. The interview with Caro motivated me to give the first volume about Johnson a try, and it was great. Caro described his project as attempting to write a biography of power, and how it comes to be. The first volume in his Johnson biography did exactly that. It was about Johnson, yes, but it was also about how a person can become powerful.

#1: From the War on Poverty to the War on Crime: The Making of Mass Incarceration in America by Elizabeth Hinton

I list this as my best read of the year because it is the most likely to have the longest-lasting impression on me. I will probably have Hinton's book in mind for years to come as I continue my quest to try to understand our criminal justice system. And, Hinton's book, I feel, has brought me quite far.


Jeannie Hua said...

I'm took a writing class on crime fiction through the Harvard Extension program and we read King's "On Writing." I was surprised it was assigned but he had concrete practical writing advice and I so enjoyed how writing was a part of his life. Happy to hear you enjoyed it too.

Liz Waggoner said...

This is Brent on my wife's account but I've been eyeing that mass incarceration book for ages. This might make me pull the trigger.

And Small Gods might be Pratchett's best book.

Liz Waggoner said...

Although almost all Pratchett's stuff, including his kid's boss, are great fun. I've read most of it.

Christopher said...

Chill out, Liz.

Randy said...

Jeannie: my views on King as a writer have really changed over the last twenty years, and I view him as a good story teller. One of my projects for the year is re-reading some of the Dark Tower books in anticipation of the movie. We'll see if I get to it.

Brent/Liz: What would you recommend for a good second Pratchett novel?

Brent Waggoner said...

The second best book is probably Reaper Man. It's another mostly standalone focusing on the character of DEATH. It's funny and poignant.

The Watch books are, without a doubt, the best subseries (there are several: the wizards, the witches, the watch, Tiffany Aching, DEATH). The first of them is Guards, Guards. It's not the best watch book but it is very good. The best Discworld book after Small Gods is probably Night Watch, but it relies a lot on having read at least a couple of the earlier Watch books.

I DON'T recommend any of the first 3 books (The Color of Magic, The Light Fantastic, Equal Rites). They're goofy and kind of fun but have almost no plot. I found them a slog. Interesting Times is a much better first Wizard book.

I personally love the Witches books, but they seem to be pretty divisive. Lords and Ladies is probably the best one. Tiffany Aching is sort of a followup series and it also a little more youth-oriented.

So, Reaper Man and if you're still interested, Guards, Guards. They a lot of fun and surprisngly good.

Randy said...

What's funny is I was already gravitating toward Death as a character (had my eye on Mort) because that was one of my favorite parts of Small Gods. I'll make Reaper Man my next Pratchett experience, but I'm still curious about your thoughts on Mort.

Brent Waggoner said...

Oh, Mort is also very good. It's actually the book where the series transforms from the light, plotless parody of the first few books into what I think of as Discworld. And actually, it takes place chronologically before Reaper Man, although TIME HOLDS NO SIGNIFICANCE FOR DEATH.

Of the death books, I'd save Hogfather for later on. It's sort of mythology dense and a lot more fun when you've read some of the other books.